Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays

It’s that time of the year; the annual blessing/chore of gifts. One of the things I have given out to friends and neighbors for many years are home baked goodies. And, like so many gifts, there is a lot of meaning and sentiment tied up in the package. So I agonize each year, trying to come up with something different and really,really wonderful. Of course I usually wait until December to do this so am in the midst of wonderful choices like boat parade parties, Holiday concerts, family dinners along with regular routines like volunteer shifts at Crystal Cove and the library bookstore. And when you add to that all the other preparations and pressures that the holidays bring something must give.

I wanted to do a Wensley cake this year but never got around to trying out the recipe for myself, never mind inflicting it upon unsuspecting recipients. Now it’s December 21st, Solstice, just to add a little more pressure, and I went to fall-back position and baked the oh so familiar and easy Wine Cakes. And, darn it, they are good! My in-house tester, Steve, proclaimed it so. So, that’s it for this year. I'm tempted to say that I took the easy route because I can say I have, ahem, brain holes. But actually, I usually do go the easy route, whenever possible.
This recipe makes 5 mini-loaf pans or two regular size loaf pans, making it ideal for small gifts.

Wine Cakes

1. box yellow cake mix
1 (3¾-ounce) box vanilla instant pudding mix
4 eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup sherry
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Powdered sugar
• Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except powdered sugar and beat for five minutes. Bake for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar and cool in pan about 15 minutes before turning them out onto a rack to finish cooling before wrapping in foil for giving.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My birthday

I had a birthday a week or so ago. I try not to think about the age associated with my birthdays, telling myself, as others also say, diplomatically, “it’s just a number” which sounds good but really, who are we kidding? It is more than just a number, it represents, better or worse, a whole lot of living.
One of the few good things about getting older is that you do start putting things, life, into some sort of perspective. I suspect the perspective is different for everyone or maybe the perspective is the same but the particulars are different. It comes down to what each of us gets enjoyment from and how we value it. After my life-changing health scare this last June I definitely think that it’s better to have a birthday than not. Getting older beats the alternative as they say.

The day started out sadly by going to a funeral for an good friend, not someone old but someone we have known for years. It’s a startling thing to have to do. We feel too young to have reached the age when your contemporaries die. Those sorts of rituals always make me reflect on life. Even more so after this last year.

The day ended up happier than it started; with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants - Sage

Sage has two locations, the original which is tucked away at a strip mall in Corona Del Mar, and this one which is Sage on the Coast located at Crystal Cove shopping center, at where else, the coast. Crystal Cove is a gorgeous 3 ½ mile stretch of state beach located between Newport and Laguna. It’s also 3miles from our house so that adds to the appeal.
The appeal is not just about the proximity though. It’s about the food which is always fresh, seasonal, interesting and delicious. And the setting is inviting and comfortable. Even though they are located at a coastal bluff they are set back enough so that there really is no ocean view as might be expected. However they have compensated by having a glorious patio that is open to a created garden and also has a large firplace for the mood. During the summer the garden is the attraction but this time of year the fireplace adds a level of coziness that is needed. During Christmas holidays it is enhanced by the traditional décor such as sparkling lights and trees, and greens and candles on the mantle. It feels very festive.

The setting could be enough to make it a good experience but then there are great appetizers and “small plates” which allow me to have a nice variety of things to eat without feeling like I’ve overdone it.

That night, for starters, Steve and I had a pear and gorgonzola pizza. They seem to know how to do pizza crust just right and the contrast of the flatbread style crust with the fruit and cheese and caramelized onions was perfect. We both had the same things so were able to admire it all and not be jealous of what the other one had.
Then we shared a granny smith and gorgonzola salad, if you like gorgonzola you can’t have too much! After that we each had a small plate with seared scallops and a shared plate of roasted cauliflower. It was a large hunk of cauliflower, maybe a half, roasted with some sort of chili. I roast cauliflower but I first cut it into florets and spread it out with red chili flakes and olive oil and sometimes dry mustard and capers. This was definitely a new way and I will try it sometime since we do love cauliflower.

Then to the grand finale. As an adult there usually is not a birthday cake as when you were a child, which is good because I think most adults aren’t crazy about cake, but that’s just my opinion. Anyway, these days when you make a big point of mentioning it is your birthday at a restaurant there is inevitably a small celebration dessert with a lighted candle. This one was a brioche bread pudding. Fabulous. It was all so perfect the dinner might well have been custom made for me.

A few days after my birthday was the 6 month anniversary of my brain anuerysm which happened on June 7, and susequent recovery. It was a rebirth of sorts so I felt a need to mark it in some way. Since the first responders are at the fire station in our neighborhood and it is close to Christmas, it seemed right to take them some home baked goodies to show my appreciation for their speed and skill in their part in saving my life. I baked 5 dozen cookies and wrapped them gaily for giving along with a written explanation of who I was and my outcome and dropped them off that day. The firefighter who answered the door seemed delighted to know the follow-up to my story. And, looked pretty happy about receiving the cookies too, so it felt satisfying to me. Along with the fact that baking on a cold rainy day is not a bad way to spend time.

I wish I could take credit for this recipe but everyone knows Nestles owns it. I have been making these cookies for years and everyone always loved them. There are other interesting holiday cookies you can make but no one doesn't like chocolate chip cookies!

Toll House Cookies

Level: Easy
• Prep: 15 min
• Cooking: 9 min
• Cooling time: 15 min cooling
• Yields: 60
• 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
• 3/4 cup granulated sugar
• 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 large eggs
• 2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) NESTLé® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
• 1 cup chopped nuts

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.
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